The Yankees rotation has struggled mightily at times this season. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ haven’t reached their potential, and when looking at the success of the likes of Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn it forces one to ponder whether there’s something wrong with the system. Baseball is all about adjustments, and being able to make them on the fly is what helps franchises, pitching coaches and pitchers maintain longevity and overall success in this league.
Last season in New York, Gray was a shell of what we saw in Oakland, and what we’re seeing this year in Cincinnati. At Yankee Stadium, Gray had an 6.98 ERA in 59.1 innings pitched. In Cincinnati, he's completely turned it around, pitching 121.2 innings so far to a 3.25 ERA, averaging 10.1 K/9. Last season, righties hit .284 and lefties hit .255, yet this season Gray has been dominant against lefties, who are only hitting .195, while righties are hitting .240.
It makes one question the dialogue the organization has with the staff when something isn't working. Changes of scenery and lessened expectations can play a role, but clearly Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson, who worked with Gray at Vanderbilt and joined the Reds in the offseason, is doing something that the Yankees and Larry Rothschild couldn't do. In his last start Sunday against a vaunted Braves lineup, Gray allowed only four hits and four walks along with seven strikeouts during a no-decision using the same slider that once haunted him in NYC, using it over 40% of the time and getting over 30% swing and misses outside of the strike-zone.
In Texas, former Yankee Lance Lynn is on his way to having a career year himself. After an uneven 2018 that included a brief stint with the Bronx Bombers last season, it looked as if Lynn would be lucky earn a multi-year contract. Fast forward to today and the Rangers remained in the Wild Card race for much of the season thanks in large part to Lynn pitching lights out this season. He’s on pace to set career highs in strikeout rate and ERA+.
In his last start against the Tigers on August 2nd, Lynn pitched masterfully, going seven innings and allowing just one run and two walks. July and August have been Lynn’s most productive months, and a commonality is his increased fastball usage, which went from 40% in May to 60.8% in July and 60.5% so far in August.
His numbers have improved drastically across the board in 2019. On the road Lynn has an 3.45 ERA compared to a 6.01 ERA last season while running a 11 K/9. At home his ERA is slightly higher at 3.94 compared to 3.59 last season, but he’s struck out five times as many batters as he’s walked at home in 2019.
Why have these guys left New York and found success elsewhere? There may be a problem with the Yankees’ pitching philosophy if pitchers are leaving the Bronx and finding success when allowed to use their best pitches and their most comfortable pitches more often.
When Gray was interviewed and asked about the difference as to why he's enjoyed such immediate success in comparison to his time in NY he stated:
I can’t command my slider that well. I want to throw my slider in the dirt with two strikes, and that’s about it. I don’t have that type of slider, like Tanaka’s slider. His slider, the catcher will catch it, and the batter will swing and miss. If I get a swing and miss, the catcher is blocking it in the dirt.
Sometimes, it seems like the Yankees’ philosophy has turned guys away from what works best for them and has made them question themselves. Facing some of the best hitters in the league day-in and day-out is a challenge in itself, and if the pitchers in the rotation don't have the confidence in the pitches they’re throwing, they put themselves at a disadvantage.
Masahiro Tanaka was selected as an All-Star this season. According to FanGraphs he's increased his fastball usage to 27%, a drastic increase from the 11% usage rate during the 2017 season which was arguably one of his worst seasons in the majors. James Paxton was looked at to be the second ace of the staff behind Luis Severino but has looked shaky during his first season in the Bronx. His fastball usage is the lowest of his career at the moment (55%) but his velocity is above average for starting pitchers.
There might be a simple conclusion to this: allow these players to pitch with what they’re most comfortable with, but give them the constructive criticism that’s necessary to make the proper adjustments to be successful. It’s a delicate balance, but the Yankees surely must learn from Lynn and Gray’s success that using a one-size-fits-all approach, often emphasizing breaking pitches at the expense of fastballs, isn’t the answer. There are no clear-cut solutions when it comes to pitcher development and pitch usage, but it’s clear the Yankees’ should be carefully examining their philosophy when it comes to individual pitchers.